The Audubon House

Previously, I wrote extensive blogs about my Uncle Fred and Aunt Sarah. After meeting and marrying, they lived in Key West for a while in the twenties. You might remember that Uncle Fred was a young merchant marine man when he met my Aunt Sarah in Key West. He later became a Harbor Pilot on Tampa Bay in Florida. But when he was in Key West after marrying Aunt Sarah in the 1920’s, he became friendly with Captain Smith. So, what has all this all to do with the Audubon House? Be patient and I will tell you.

Uncle Fred in later years whisked my Aunt Sarah away from Key West. The family was not happy as they had recently bought them a house for back taxes. You could do that back then. So, Sarah and Fred left Key West and went to live in Tampa. Uncle Fred and Aunt Sarah often visited us; and as a child, I remember oftentimes during the visit Uncle Fred would stand up and say, I’m going to see Captain Smith.”  He said that Captain Smith lived in a small room at the top of a big house on Whitehead Street. This was in the early fifties long before the Audubon House was bought and restored. All these years I have thought that Captain Smith was a caretaker. Today I found out he was a great grandson of Captain John Geiger who built the “Audubon House” in the 1850’s.

In the Key West Citizen ”Today in Key West” section I read something that brought some of the pieces of my past together. It said, “1885:  John Geiger died in Key West. He was born in St. Augustine in 1807 and came to Key West as a pilot for Commodore David Porter in 1823. He was the first licensed harbor pilot In the State of Florida. Geiger, was a master wrecker and built what is now known as the Audubon House.”

I looked up John Geiger on the internet and came up with some sketchy information.  On one entry said that when visiting the Audubon House the curator told her that when John Geiger Sr. passed on, there were two sons who drank themselves into a stupor and would never enter through the front door. Instead they had a ladder which they used to enter through a window on the second floor. There’s a story there, but I don’t know it.  Anyway, the last resident of the “Audubon House” was William Bradford Smith, the grandson of Urania Geiger, one of John Geiger’s eight daughters. Captain Smith was also a sometime Harbor Pilot which is probably how Captain Enno, my uncle, got to know him in the 1920’s. He became very reclusive in later years, but it is said that he was very sociable with people he considered friends. It’s just that he didn’t have many of them. I think Captain Enno, was his friend and visited him every time he came to Key West.

Willie Smith was the last Geiger to live in the “Audubon House” and he was an interesting figure. He didn’t go out much and lived on the second floor of the house without electricity or running water. When he needed food he lowered a basket on a rope for someone to fill, Who? When it was dark he pulled it up. During WWII, when Willie was a  harbor pilot, German submarines patrolled the Straits of Florida between Cuba and Key West. It  was reported that there were ships on fire out there most nights. There were thousands of ships in and out of Key West in those days.

When Willie Smith died in 1956, the once grand house was derelict and on the verge of falling down. It was about to be demolished in 1958 and a gas station opened on the property. A Key West native and Miami businessman, Mitchell Wolfson, bought it and restored it. It was  opened as a historic attraction in 1960.

Most of the people in Key West during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were involved in wrecking or salvaging of shipwrecked craft, either legitimately or as scavengers or pirates. The pirate angle has been played down in recent years, as history often bends to the conceits of the historian; but this doesn’t stop Peter from telling anyone who will listen that I’m descended from a long line of swash-buckling ocean-going smartly-dressed pirates. Faint praise indeed. Many of the old houses in Key West still have lookouts above their top floors where people would watch with spy glasses for ships foundering on shoals. The first rescue boat that arrived got to claim the salvage and take their booty to the powers that be to be sold at auction, the wrecker getting 25 to 50 per cent, depending on the difficulty of the rescue effort. Most of the wreckers became quite wealthy.

So why is the Audubon House not called the Geiger House. Well I guess Mr. Audubon visited there sometime in the 1830s and made some beautiful drawings (lithographs) of birds in the Florida Keys. Actually, I read somewhere that he never visited the house. During the two weeks, he was in Key West drawing birds, he lived on a boat because of the Yellow Fever epidemic raging at the time. A number of Audubon originals can be seen there and furnishings of that era in Key West. The gardens out back are spectacular. You can take a tour.

2 thoughts on “The Audubon House”

  1. So glad you’re back. Was sorry to miss you in Feb. This is a terrific post – smartly-dressed pirates?! Love it. Keep ’em coming!

  2. Another delightful addition to your blog, Joanne! Good to know that you’re descended from pirates, albeit well-dressed ones, according to Peter. [That tidbit of information does make me wonder a tiny bit about what dastardly deed you may or may not be capable of… ; ) ] You DO look the innocent girl, even with that merry twinkle in your eye.

    I hope you had a wonderful Mother’s Day! You are still in my prayers, dear friend! — Mary

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